To be read: April 25, August 26, December 26
If any difficult or impossible tasks are assigned to a brother, let him receive the order given to him with all meekness and obedience. 2If, however, he sees that the task is altogether beyond his strength, then he should patiently and reasonably explain the reasons for his inability to his Superior, 3without pride, protest, or refusal to obey. 4If, however, after his explanation the Superior still insists on his assignment, then the younger must accept that it is good for him, 5and let him obey in love, relying on the help of God.
The practice of obedience was dealt with in chapter 5 of the Rule. In that chapter Benedict made clear that true obedience is always immediate, complete, and joyful; anything less is at best compliance, and at worst rebellion. But once again, it appears that there were issues which arose as the monasteries grew and multiplied, and these issues needed to be addressed. Questions were apparently raised as to the legitimacy of questioning an order given. And is it ever acceptable to request to be excused from a task that appears to be beyond one’s ability? To whom must one be obedient? So, here in chapter 68, and again in chapter 71, Benedict once again addresses the practice of obedience.
In the current chapter, Benedict deals with the problem of a monk being ordered to do something which the individual feels is beyond his capabilities. Can he request exemption from this task? Is it ever acceptable to question an order given? Why would one in authority ask someone to do “any difficult or impossible task”? The Old Testament teaching on hearing and obeying holds a key for us. The Hebrew word “Hear!” (shema) literally means “already to be in response” or “to obey” The sense of the command is that the hearer is always to be primed, ready to be responsively obedient. The most famous verse from the Old Covenant is known as “The Shema”: “Hear (shema), O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” (Deut. 6:4). But the verse that makes clear the connection between hearing and obeying is found in the Psalms: “As soon as they heard (shema) me they obeyed (shema) me…” (Ps. 18:45). We are called to listen to the commands of God and his appointed and anointed leaders, and be ready to immediately, completely, and joyfully accept the task handed to us.
So, is it ever acceptable to question a command given to you? Benedict says that it is okay to “patiently and reasonably explain the reasons for his inability to his Superior, without pride, protest, or refusal to obey.” But it is never acceptable to simply refuse to do the task or to question the authority of the one giving the command. The one in authority may be looking at the task from a far different perspective than the one assigned to do it. Benedict explains that if “the Superior still insists on his assignment, then the younger must accept that it is good for him.” There must be a reason for the one in authority to assign that task to the one who finds it difficult or seemingly impossible. Benedict is saying that to accept the “impossible task” is to already be doing what you question your ability to do. It is in the doing that we learn how to do what we are commanded to do. It is in the doing that we learn what are our weaknesses and our strengths, and that is a very important and valuable lesson. We are called to be humble, to be “fools for Christ’s sake” (1 Cor. 4:10). We may not do the task well, because it is beyond our current ability, but we will undoubtedly learn a valuable lesson from the experience.